Vladimir Putin is in a spot of bother. A recent opinion poll suggests only one in three Russians believe their president can solve the country’s problems – a drop of some 30 percentage points since 2015.
That one in three Russians still believe Putin is the answer to the country’s woes is, in its own way, remarkable. After all, he has been in charge for the best part of two decades as either prime minister or president. During that time he has not only failed to make progress on a whole range of issues, but, in many cases, made them much worse.
Western coverage of Russia tends to focus on Putin’s adventuring abroad, either with military interventions or attempts to subvert Western democracies.
At home, however, the story is one of tens of millions of people living relentlessly tough lives, while a hand-picked political class gorges itself on the proceeds of corruption. A report published in November estimates as many as one in five Russians are living in poverty. Bear in mind, too, that the threshold for poverty used here is just £132 a month – an eyewateringly low sum, even accounting for the relatively low cost of living in many parts of the country.
That situation has been exacerbated by a combination of chronically high inflation and a new VAT hike imposed by the Kremlin. The loss of purchasing power has become all too apparent in supermarkets, where the usual 10-pack of eggs has become a nine-pack, with no corresponding change in price.
Older people are also disgruntled by the decision to raise the pension age to 60 for women and 65 for men. That might sound unremarkable to people living in wealthy Western countries, but due to the shockingly low life expectancy in Russia, around four in 10 men will not now live to see any of their pension.
All of these miserable statistics are a reflection of an economy that is in the doldrums. After years of high oil prices and improving living standards, Russia took an almighty hit during the 2008 financial crisis and once again in 2014 when low commodity prices combined with a series of Western sanctions to undermine growth. While some might blame the vicissitudes of global oil markets, the real culprit is Putin himself, who has done little to diversify the Russian economy, or to tackle the rampant corruption that chokes entrepreneurship, investment and, ultimately, growth.
None of this is to suggest Putin’s regime is about to collapse, Soviet-style, under the weight of its own contradictions. For one thing, the President has built a ‘l’etat, c’est moi‘ system, even running for the presidency as an ‘independent’, rather than the head of his party, United Russia. And though his approval ratings might be at a 13-year low, they are still above 60 per cent. Running as an independent was a canny trick, insofar as it allows Putin a sliver of plausible deniability for the mis-steps of the government nominally run by his puppet Dmitrii Medvedev.
Nor is there anything one could call an opposition. Like so much else in the country, rival political parties are largely a sham. As the Soviet-born British journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev documents in his excellent book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, the Kremlin selects its own opposition party leaders to give the illusion of democracy while ensuring Putin’s hold on power remains absolute.
Where there is grassroots dissent, such as the anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by campaigner Alexei Navalny, it is easily put down by the police and security services, aided and abetted by a sham judiciary. Nor are any of the billionaire oligarchs about to start fomenting dissent — they know only too well that their continued prosperity relies on staying in Putin’s good books. They also know only too well that fleeing the country is no defence against the use of deadly force by the Russian state.
But while Putin himself looks unassailable, Russia’s domestic travails should give those in the West who fear Putin pause for thought.
To read Western coverage, one could be forgiven for thinking that Russian troops are massing on the borders of the EU, waiting to storm in — an idea that owes more to popular memories of the Soviet Union than any realistic threat from its far weaker successor.
True, Russia does still invest heavily in its military. But, for all the chest-beating displays of military hardware on Red Square, it’s worth remembering that Russia’s military spending is around a tenth of the United States. Indeed, Britain and France combined comfortably outspend the Kremlin, while India and Japan are roughly on a par.
Nor are the Russian armed forces immune to the parlous state of the rest of the economy. Defence spending shrank by 17 per cent from 2016 to 2017, even while Putin boasted of new supersonic nukes that would bypass all of Nato’s defensive systems.
Increasingly the Kremlin’s fixation with military sabre-rattling looks a sign of weakness, rather than strength. Indeed, incursions into Georgia, Ukraine and latterly Syria seem less like a geostrategic plan and more like ‘wag the dog’ adventurism, designed to simultaneously rile opponents and stoke the fires of nationalism among Putin’s domestic audience.
To be sure, technological change means disparities in spending on conventional weapons matter less than they used too. And Russia has shown a willingness to dabble in the unconventional in recent years.
But the attempts to disrupt Western elections, be it in America, the UK or Germany, for example, are the mark not of a serious global power, but of a geopolitical troll, goading its opponents into a reaction.
Certainly Western governments should be vigilant and respectful in their dealings with what is still a nuclear-armed state. But they should do so firm in the knowledge that under the shiny surface lies a country with profound problems.
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